Importance of Open Dialogue: College

Friday the faculty and staff at my school had a special “School Pride Day.” Usually on Fridays we show our school spirit and pride by wearing our high school’s colors or apparel. This Friday was different, we were showing spirit and pride in the colleges or universities we have attended for undergraduate, graduate, and even a few doctoral degrees. So, without questions I was there in my favorite Saint Michael’s College hat and sweatshirt. The sweatshirt I purchased the day I visited campus and interviewed for acceptance, eight years ago this coming January (time flies).

The goal of this day was to help promote dialogue between students and teachers regarding higher education. To help increase awareness of more opportunities for continued education beyond the local colleges students are aware of. The target audience for these conversations was mostly juniors and seniors, those who are much closer to the process, but it was not limited to just those classes.

For me personally, and I’m sure many teachers out there,  one of the fears I had about opening up dialogue regarding college is that the conversation would instantly turn to topics like partying and drinking. Topics that juniors and seniors are curious about, but most likely have a skewed perspective on thanks to movies and the media. For me it came down to making sure the conversation happens in an appropriate manner, appropriate for school and between teacher and students, but also allows for a more accurate vision of what college means.

When my class of juniors and seniors arrived, toward the end of the day, the the first thing they said to me was that they hadn’t really talked with any other teachers about college. One student even said “I don’t think they got the point.” This motivated me to make sure I had a good, open, conversation with these 14 students, all but 1 being seniors. So, I opened the dialogue by asking for their questions about college. I chose a girl with her hand raised, who I knew would have an serious question to start us off:

“What was the hardest part of college?”

My brain instantly knew the answer, and as I formed my thoughts I knew this would be a perfect way to address what they were all dying to know, on my terms.

I responded that the hardest part of college was finding balance. Balancing academics, with the social aspects. In college it was a lot easier to find ways to distract yourself, procrastinate, or blow off work all together. It’s easy to do other things besides academics, with all of your friends living within a square half-mile or so, along with the fact that parents aren’t there to make sure you are doing your homework or studying, and that professors aren’t going to track you down at the end of class to let you know what late work you are missing.

As I elaborated on these ideas I was able to describe how I wasn’t a “nerd in the library every night” (their words), I made the best friends anyone could ask for and we made some great memories*, but I was also successful academically. We continued the conversation for close to 30 of the 42 minutes of the period. They continued to ask great questions about financial aid, where else I applied, how I chose Saint Mike’s. I didn’t end our discussion until I could tell it had transition into: now let’s just use up the rest of class.

After the class ended I felt good about our conversation. Students had questions answered, by someone still close to my own time in college, and it was a candid conversation. Most of all I feel like I was able to paint a portrait of college beyond that of Animal House and American Pie. I think by avoiding these conversations, just because they might be uncomfortable, it continues the problem. Instead, we should find ways to have these conversations in a manner that is honest and responsible.


*I dedicate this post to the gentlemen of 403 and Club Drome. Friends I’ll never forget.

Another Face of Ambition

I’ve been part of a few conversations lately regarding professional ambition. Most of  these conversations have been from the business perspective. In business someone puts in long hours, works hard to impress the ‘powers that be’ and hopefully you get a new, better job, a dream job. Better because it’s more interesting, engaging, exciting, or pays you more money. This person would probably be labeled as ambitious.  In the business would it’s a lot easier to see ambition, and see goals as they are achieved and new goals are made. You climb the corporate ladder, beating out the other man or woman, and you become more and more successful; the goal of the ambitious.

I believe that because this same ladder climbing doesn’t occur in education people have the misconception that teacher’s aren’t ambitious. Especially when they are portrayed in the media and then in peoples’ minds as simply wanting to find a good school to teach in and ride it out until retirement. This is false. Just because in education we as teachers are not pitted against each other (hopefully) to get ‘better’ jobs, or to compete for success in the same way as the business world, does not mean that we are not ambitious.

Some may say that part of climbing the ladder in education is getting seniority so that you can teach the ‘good’ classes, the honors or the AP. For some teachers this may be their ambition, but for me it isn’t. I currently teach students that have a huge variety of learning styles and academic skills, and that’s what I love about teaching: the variation. I love the challenge of finding ways to reach out to, connect with, and teach all students because all students deserve to have their lives enriched by science, by Biology.

Though it sounds corny and cliché this is my ambition: to make as many students lives better, as I can. To know that I played a role in providing them with knowledge and opportunities that would not have had otherwise. As I have thought about writing this post for the past few weeks, I’ve rolled my thoughts over and over in my head and realized it is not a ladder I wish to climb that marks my ambition, but a web I hope to build; a web of people. People, who I have taught, connected with and had an impact on their lives.

Being in my forth year this web has begun to form. In June, 2011, the sophomores I taught during my first year graduated, some moved on to college, other to careers. The seniors I taught in my first year of teaching are now juniors in college or into their third year of their job, volunteering or other post-high school options. In this short time my ambition has started to bear fruit, as I have several instances that I mark as achievements.

  1. December 2010: A ’09 graduate came back to visit me after completing her first semester at Maine Maritime Academy, where she is studying Marine Biology. She thanked me for everything she learned in my Marine Biology class, and told me it solidified her desire to be a Marine Biologist.
  2. October 2011: A ’11 graduate stopped by, just say ‘Hi’. He graduated last June and has been working at a heavy machinery repair shop. He was excited to tell me about all the different jobs and responsibilities he has in that job and reminisce about the class he took with me two years ago.
  3. October 2011: Two students, ’10 and ’11 graduates saw me from across the mall and came over to fill me in about the apartment hunt they were on, as well as the classes and nursing program they are enrolled in at UVM.
  4. November 2011: A ’10 grad, sophomore in college now, sent me a message wondering if I could send her a couple of the articles we had read in Marine Biology about the great Pacific Garbage Patch. She was studying it in one of her college courses and remember we had used to informative articles and websites.
  5. November 2011: I ran into a student who is now a freshman in college. She thanked me for making her work so hard in Human Biology because her Anatomy & Physiology class is a lot easier in college because she knows a lot of it already.

Each of these small occasions, plus many more, which occur day to day, mark times where I knew that I had impacted these people. My ambition to build a web of those who I have helped, taught, or made a difference to is progressing. At these times I am equally excited to hear specifically what the individual took from the class content, as I am to know that they have a connection with me that makes them want to share their life successes.

I invite educators to think about the web they are building and what qualities are you being remembered for. Is that the web you hope to leave behind? Finally, I urge non-educators to remember that just because our ambition has a different face, it is still there, and just as valuable.

Simply Inspired: LuminAID

I believe strongly in the ideas behind conservation biology, and the efforts of so many dedicated individuals and groups to protect the amazing biodiversity of the natural world we live in.

This internal passion is one of the most important messages I try to instill in my students. They can make a difference in the world around them. We do this by increasing their awareness of some of the ecological threats we are facing today, and examining what we can do to improve the state of the natural world. Something so important, because honestly we are taking it for granted.

Last Wednesday while reading articles from, a site that compiles informational content related to the environment, conservation, and technology, I stumbled upon a product that ignited excitement and inspired me. Its pure simplicity paired with innovation that has huge possibilities to make the world a better place for so many.

© LuminAID

The product is called LuminAID. Put as simply as it is elegant: it is an inflatable solar light. A water proof pouch that contains a solar panel, rechargeable battery and LED light. The video below describes the LuminAID.

The LuminAID inspires me, catches my imagination, and gives me hope for the future of our planet. Yet, I can’t  quite put my finger on exactly what aspect of the LuminAID I find so magnificent.

Could it be its simple, yet practical and innovative design. A small, foldable design that can be used in so many ways. This simple, inexpensive product can provide light to disaster victims, to people in developing nations without reliable electricity, or even to me as I sit at home on a Vermont winter night, when the power is out.

Or could it be the the “Give Light, Get Light” business motto they have taken. For each LuminAID light someone buys, they will then give a LuminAID to the community projects they are working on around the world. An approach that motivates giving.

Or is it the implications for the planet.  This simple product could reduce the use of many make-shift lamps and lanters in those same developing or disaster struck areas. Helping to cut down on toxins harmful to both people’s respiratory systems, but also the environment.

The LuminAID isn’t going to change national energy production, and all the detrimental ecological problems aligned with it. However, it is innovation moving in the right direction. Change starts at the personal level. If we are going to change how a nation produces energy, first we have the change how the individual thinks about energy. Making people aware of the successful use of renewable energy, like solar, and increasing its prevalence in our U.S. culture, and other cultures around the world, is the first step in shifting the energy paradigm.

LuminAID has done this for me. It inspired me to share its informational video with all my classes, about 80 students, and some even said ‘cool’ out loud. Perhaps they will share it with their friends or family. It has inspired me to write this post. It has inspired me to “give light, get light.”

I hope you are inspired to get more information or give light yourself. Their goal is sell 10,000 dollars world of LuminAID, but I think we can do better than that. Our planet deserves it.

The Things Students Remember…

One set of my classes just took a test on the different Biomes of the world. We covered 9 of them: Arctic, Tundra, Coniferous Forest, Deciduous Forest, Estuary, Savanna, Desert, Rainforest, and Coral Reefs.

A Deciduous Forest during October in Vermont

During this period of study students researched the defining characteristics (rainfall, average temperature, etc…) of their chosen biome. The next step was to examine the adaptions of organisms that are able to survive and live in those different regions of the planet.

We covered countless examples of different organisms with varying traits, and different evolutionary benefits from across all of these biomes. One of the questions on the test was to provide an example of an organism from the Desert, Savanna, and Tundra and then describe one adaptation that increases the survival rate of each of the organisms.

Of all the organisms we discussed, and had to choose from, I saw an overwhelming trend that students provided the same example organism and the same adaptations as their classmates. I collected the following data:

81% of my students described the cactus from the Desert

74% described the caribou from the Tundra

61% describe the zebra from the Savanna

(Sample size 54 students)

 As I graded these tests I wondered what made students remember these organisms? These adaptations? Why were so many answers so similar?

As I proctor quizzes and tests I wander through the aisles of desks answering questions and checking to see that directions are being followed accurately. I am pretty aware of what’s going on, it hasn’t been that long since I was in their seats. So, I have thrown out the idea of a vast conspiracy against me with an elaborate underground system of note passing and sharing answers via text message. (I hope)

So what are the other options?

My next thought is that many of these students have seen movies like “The Lion King” and are comfortable with recalling information related to zebras or other savanna organisms. I’d also guess when anyone thinks about the desert a cactus is one of the first things that comes to mind. Students have prior knowledge of these organisms, so they connect better with them, and can describe them more successfully.

On the other hand, I myself am fascinated with the cactus, and as a result got excited to talk about them. The fact that their roots can grow rapidly at the stimulus of moisture, and they create a flat network of roots close to the surface, like a flattened umbrella, (a simile I used in class) allowing rapid collection and then storage of up to 3,000 liters of water in their enlarged stems. Amazing.

Though its hard to actually show my excitement and awe at these organisms as I sit here typing, perhaps being a “scientist nerd geek”, as I was called by one of my students last week, is actually paying off. Perhaps my enthusiasm, though they might think its geeky, actually caught the interest of students, provided the right environment to remember, or just the memory of that time ‘dorky Mr. Reid got really excited about a cactus’. And so, voila when it came time to show what they knew they could remember my excited, nerdy ramblings.

I can’t be sure which explanation may have more influence over the outcome: my excitement during instruction, their prior knowledge, or even an option C. Whatever the reason it’s a win-win situation, learning occured.

Building connections to prior knowledge is such an important step in learning. Making the content applicable to the students, and what they already know, and have experienced is the keystone to developing long lasting knowledge and skills. On top of that how can I expect my students to be excited about Biology if I’m not. I can’t. So, I own my passion for science and accept great nick names that go along with it.